I’ve been re-reading a book by Francis Chan called Crazy Love, and one of the first things that Chan challenges his readers to do is consider the magnificence of the physical universe. He points his readers to a video on YouTube that outlines the complexity and scope of the actual universe, and to another video that invites the viewer to contemplate the beauty of nature that reveals God’s handiwork.
The book is a challenging read, in case you’re looking for one. It’s certainly something that moves me to think, and one particular section has been lurking in the back of my mind for a while now. Here’s Chan, from page 29 of Crazy Love:
There is an epidemic of spiritual amnesia going around, and none of us is immune. No matter how many fascinating details we learn about God’s creation, no matter how many pictures we see of His galaxies, and no matter how many sunsets we watch, we still forget.
Chan’s talking about our propensity to reduce life into l i f e, to take the magnitude of what it means to truly live and equate it with crap that dilutes our perspective. And if you think about the immeasurable pleasure that we should derive from the mere fact that we are breathing (not to mention walking, talking, thinking, loving, eating, sleeping, or any of the myriad other amazing things we do that we take for granted) compared to how grumpy a good many of us are, Chan’s on the mark with his critique: we have short memories.
Or, to borrow an example from my son’s recent favorite movie, we are all Dory at heart.
I’m guilty of looking at a sunrise and thinking, “Crap. I gotta get up.” I’m equally guilty of looking at almost any natural phenomenon and thinking, “Is it time to eat yet?” I tend, despite my being a bit of a dreamer, to get lost in minor details that don’t really matter much in the Bigger Picture. A lot of us do.
And I think that, sometimes, we kind of want to get lost in the details. We want to be consumed by those things that remind us of our lives, of our existence and reality within a world that might otherwise not care. So we worry about hairlines and waistlines and eyeshadow and lipstick and snakeskin boots because those microscopic details are usually the things we most associate with our us-ness, with being me.
In other words, much like that picture of our whole graduating class, we don’t like the Bigger Picture because it’s so hard to find ourselves within it.
When Pop first got sick, I had a hard time visiting for more than 30 minutes or so. Part of that difficulty, I told myself, was the fact that my kids can take a fully furnished room all the way back to plywood decking and un-mudded drywall within 12.78 minutes. You just can’t let small children have free play for very long.
But the real issue, and I can admit this now, is that I was uncomfortable with seeing the Bigger Picture. Watching your grandfather die is not easy, because it is a constant reminder of mortality. You look at his frail figure and you realize that you too will one day come to that place in life when you swap places with your children. You realize that the vitality and energy you have today will one day be taken away from you. You realize just how brief your time on this spinning ball of mud and salt-water really is.
And these realizations make you want to run away into the smaller details, to get lost again inside yourself. To embrace the illusion that is the Smaller Picture.
That’s why Chan’s quote about spiritual amnesia struck me so solidly; for a long time, I willingly forgot about the gravity of Pop’s condition. Not that I forgot he was sick, or neglected to visit, but that I just didn’t think about what was really going on. I willfully pushed the reality of his impending death out of my head.
Chan’s quote also struck me because he references sunsets, and that got me to thinking even harder about Pop.
Throughout my entire life, Pop has been blue like the sky – deep, beautiful, and seemingly without end. He’s been an uninterrupted part of my world and I’ve taken him for granted. Much like we don’t often stop to contemplate just how gorgeous the sky can be when the sun is shining bright, or how the blue of an October sky in Georgia is radically different from the blue of an October sky in Maine, we don’t usually stop and think about the people who are our constants. They are simply there.
And so, when that constant begins to fade, begins to give way to the colors of diminution – pink, saffron, lemon, maroon, blood orange, blood red – we begin to see that blue sky differently. A sunset marks the end of that blue sky and brings on the darkness of evening. I’m torturing the metaphorical language a bit, but there’s something poetic about the transitioning between the bright, openness of day and the dark mystery of night; there’s equal poetry in the way a life slowly fades from our view and into the dark mystery of death.
I went to see Pop this morning and while he’s had a few good days in a row, there is no mistaking that he is in the sunset of his life. The colors are all changed, his presence markedly smaller, just like the sky seems to shrink as the sun dips behind the curvature of the earth off on the horizon. But there’s so much beauty to behold, and it speaks to the wonder of God. The love between Pop and my grandmother; between Pop and my aunt and uncle; between Pop and my dad. The constant coming and going of friends and family and long-distant folks who come to gaze on the majesty of a life well lived. There’s laughter; the telling of old stories to new audiences; the sound of children playing in another room, innocently unaware of the process of life coming to an end, teaching each of us something in its own peculiar way.
I go now and sit without hesitation, without feeling the slightest bit awkward, because I finally know what I’m witnessing. I’m watching the greatest of all sunsets, an extravagant masterpiece of color and beauty and light. I can appreciate this close of day because I know that for Pop, as it is for all Christians, there will be a dawn that breaks immediately. Only we who are left behind will have to endure the nighttime of grief and loss and pain.
But we are comforted by the words of the One who causes the sun to rise and set in everyone’s life, words that speak to anyone going through the dark night of the soul:
Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning.
Amen, and amen.